Plena is Work, Plena is Song

by Edgardo Díaz Díaz

Originally, this working-class music was denigrated lowbrow, but later became accepted by the middle and upper classes. On the way up, the music changed. This is demonstrated by two prominent groups: Manuel Jiménez (Canario) y su Conjunto and Orquesta de César Concepción. Canario, who was based in New York, is credited for plena’s increased popularity in commercial circuits in the 1930s, although it came at the cost of subjecting the iconic pandero to the standards of a Cuban conjunto. In Puerto Rico, César Concepción’s orchestra eliminated the tambourine as too-African and substituted brass.

Overall, however, the film gives pre-eminence to the music’s working class roots, with interviews – both in New York and Puerto Rico – with former sugar-cane and needle laborers, union representatives, and community leaders, who describe the importance of plena as a satirical medium during many periods of socio-economic vicissitudes and crisis.

One of these conflicts, for example, took place in Mayagüez during the 1930s, when a strike by needle workers inspired composer Monserrate Rivera Alers to create “Aló, ¿quién ñama?” (“Hello, Who’s Calling”). The film, narrated by poet Sandra María Estéves, is another reminder of women’s outstanding roles in these struggles.

In the two decades since the full documentary first was released, little has changed to decrease the usefulness of the film in courses on social and cultural studies. While the writers of the original documentary had reflected a sense that plena was dying out as voice on behalf of popular sectors in Puerto Rico and New York, since then the music style seems have revitalized. And its influence is spreading world-wide, with groups like the Arab-Andalusian Radio Tarifa, whose album Temporal (1998) re-creates a song by Bunbum with embellishments characteristic of much music in the Middle East. In recent years, musicians from the New York-Puerto Rico circuit featuring plena include the ensemble Viento de Agua and William Cepeda’s Afro-Rican Jazz, both groups engaged in experimental approaches; while various groups, including the New York-based Yerbabuena, Bombayó, and Pleneros de la 21 instill their plenas with rap- and réggaeton-related styles.

Plena Is Work, Plena is Song was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts- Folk Art Division, and the New York Council on the Humanities.

The documentary can been seen in its entirety at the library of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College. Plena is Work may also be purchased, or rented, from The Cinema Guild (


Uploaded - October 15, 2010.

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